Ordinarily, states rely on courts and prisons to protect the citizenry from criminals, but California seems determined to turn that convention on its head: Here, we need courts to protect criminals from the state's voters.
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider Tuesday whether to overturn an order by a panel of three federal judges that the state reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity within two years, which would mean trimming the inmate count by about 25% from its current average of 165,000. The judges determined that medical care for inmates was so bad that it violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and cited overcrowding as a primary cause. California has appealed the order and is being joined by 18 other states, which are worried that their own prison systems might not pass federal muster.
To understand how California found itself in a position in which it must build more prisons, release 40,000 inmates or transfer them to other states, or some combination, it's helpful to examine the results of a recent Times/USC poll. Asked how they would close the state's $25-billion budget gap, voters strongly rejected tax hikes yet offered few suggestions on what spending programs to cut — with one exception. More than 70% wanted to cut the prison system's budget. Meanwhile, voters here have a long history of supporting tough-on-crime measures, which helped boost the prison population to unsustainable numbers.